All Walled Up

This Weeks Research: 62. Live man buried in bridge masonry according to superstition—or black cat.
The Resulting Story: The Bride and The Bridge

There are few fates more terrible then being buried alive. The paranoia about being buried alive has gripped entire cultures. Victorians laid bells and viewing glasses, so that the living might distinguish themselves from the dead. Modern day variants include being buried with a cellphone, in case that dreadful fate occur to them. But this prompt is about a far older practice: Immurement .

Burying a live victim into the foundations of a building is an old and common practice. Bridges in particular often have some buried in the stone in order to appease those spirits into whose domain they cross. River gods, you see, frequently asked for brides or attendants. An immurement was a more permanent payment, that the strength of the spirit maintain the bridge and appease the spirit.

The Balkans have stories of a morbid, Gothic character of a spirit demanding first two twins (who’s names are Strong and Sturdy). When this fails, the spirit demands a wife of the community: Not a stranger, not a widow, not an orphan. No, it must be the wife of the chief mason or the nobility. The wife is taken, often laughing until she is placed in the hole. Then, realizing her fate, she begins begging for freedom, then turns to cursing her kin, until at last she asks that her right side (Her arms, hand, and face) be left free, that she may gaze upon her newborn child. And this is done, and she nurses her child for another week (or longer, as sometimes the bridge still produces breast milk to this day).

The variations in this story sometimes make it more tragic. In the first place, sometimes the woman is decided by a promise among the three lords: whoever brings the workman their food first will be sacrificed. However, the first and second nobles break their code of silence and warn their wives. The youngest and noblest stays to his word. Come morning, the older women avoid bringing the food down. And the youngest, realizing what has happened, tries delaying the younger woman’s descent. She curses them all as she is walled up by the masons.

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This deception is similar to the Greek story of Iphigenia. Here, Agamemnon is told that for the winds to rise and the thousand ships Helen launched to sail, his daughter must be sacrificed. Unlike our other stories, this sacrifice is commanded because Artemis has been offended by the king—he killed a deer in her sacred grove, and thus must compensate blood for blood. He conspires with his brother to tell his wife to send his daughter—Iphigenia—to the camp, where she will wed Achilles, supposedly. When she arrives, she is brought to be sacrificed—sometimes she is saved by Artemis.

This older myth is still, however, about crossing a body of water by sacrificing a young woman. While Iphegenia is not yet a mother—a requirement of the other stories for the sacrifice—she is generally the same form as prior sacrifices to raise a bridge. Later on, we will examine the broader sacrifices of maidens to monsters of rivers and seas—Andromeda comes to mind—but for now Iphegenia’s particular tragedy is enough. There is no monsterous serpent that will kill her. She is slain by her own family.

The practice is also reminiscent of those done in Japan during bridge building, termed hitobashira. These pillars, marked by human sacrifices below, serve as a prayer that the building never suffer do to natural causes, such as floods or storms. The examples I have also include incidents where such deaths were averted by clever sacrifices, who outsmarted or gambled their lives back. Again, they are marked as an appeasement to river deities, a class of entity we’ve touched on before. The rivers power of devastation might be lost sometimes, but the flood waters can devastate populations.,

Other methods of immurement include burying a man or woman or dog in the corner stone. A passerby might be interned by accident if their shadow passes over the spot for the stone, and many of those buried haunt the place after. A church grim is a specific canine breed of this ghost. In Yorkshire lore, it is not the person buried beneath the church that becomes the grim, but rather the first buried in a graveyard that guards it against the devil and defilers.

According to a prominent if false urban legend, the Great Wall of China had men buried in it. This would have been foolish, as the decomposing corpses would have defeated the purpose of a wall. A more accurate burial of human sacrifices would be those in the tomb of the first Emperor, who were buried that their knowledge not escape the Emperor’s life. Such procedures to avoid tomb robbers have been practiced in many regions, with mixed success.

A case of near immurement occurred in a recorded story from Morocco. The worker fell ill, and the sultan decreed he would be buried in the wall as punishment for slowing the construction. When a passing saint, al-Yusi, is asked to intervene he opposes the sultan, until he is banishd. Al-Yusi settled in a nearby graveyard. The sultan rode out to drive him out, only for his horse to begin to sink into the graves until he repented, nearly buried alive himself.

Immurement beneath houses is equally common, for similar reasons. By placing the ancestors beneath the floorboards, you could ensure their help to the family for years later. An intentional, benevolent haunting of the house if you will. This practice is well observed as a secondary burial, found in various regions as well. Prehistoric burials have been found with the body placed in a pot beneath the floor boards, just in case.

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Leaving folklore behind for a moment, there is also the horror tradition at work here. We must consider a pair of Edgar Allen Poe stories for burial while alive: The Black Cat—which provides the strange second clause of this prompt, of course—and the Cask of Amontillado, where a man is buried alive in a wine cellar. In fact, the latter story seems oddly similar to the stories from the Balkans, with the laughter before a silent end. Arguably, his classic, the Tell Tale Heart, is a similar end, with a burial under the floor boards—albeit a dead one that pretends to be alive.

The story we stitch together then has some strong thematic routes and pathos. It will evoke betrayal, desperation, and of course fear. Not only is being buried alive claustrophobic, it is quite literally confronting the ultimate fate of things early. I think keeping the divine call for a sacrifice. I’m torn between the point of view of the sacrifice or the sacrificer. The sacrifice has the most sympathetic view, but shrinks our horror to a few hours walk, and is ambushed by the burial. The sacrificer, meanwhile, is well aware of the deception. The happiness, the innocence of the lamb lead to slaughter is all the more poignant when you are the butcher.

The other end of planning is doing knife twisting properly. A constant melody of ironic statements, of poignant phrases that mount misery on misery would get as boring as a never ending description of how truly horrifying this or that monster is. The writing here needs balance and relief from the pain, in order to function properly. If the hand is over played, then the horror and tragedy will become schlocky and overwrought. A thing I do try and avoid at times.

 

Biblography

Amster, Ellen. Medicine and the Saints: Science, Islam, and the Colonial Encounter in Morocco, 1877-1956. University of Texas Press, 2014.
Butler, Thomas. Monumenta Serbocroatica: a Bilingual Anthology of Serbian and Croatian Texts from the 12th to the 19th Century. Michigan Slavic Publ., 1996.
Holton, Milne, and Vasa D. Mihailovich. Songs of the Serbian People From the Collections of Vuk Karadzic. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014.

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